MILLIONAIRE: A MAJOR FRAUD
ITV 1, Monday
Channel 4, Tuesday
Channel 4, Sunday and Monday
BBC 1, Sunday
THE SIMPSONS 300th EPISODE
Sky One, Sunday
CHARLES INGRAM rescued my Easter. Normally a week spent communing with the telly is a prospect I greet with joy, beer and pistachio nuts. Not this time. This was as dispiriting a couch marathon as I can remember - until providence intervened with Millionaire: A Major Fraud.
What a story this has been. It combines avarice, snobbery and chicanery on the parts of the principals with self-righteous schadenfreude among the public and press. Martin Bashir, a man who could radiate sombre outrage at the chipping of a teacup, was the ideal presenter. “It seemed,” he intoned, in that manner both lurid and lugubrious, “the perfect crime.” It what? The only conceivable crime less perfect would be to stick up the reception desk at New Scotland Yard, and leave behind your wallet, driving licence and a fresh set of passport photographs.
“It's a classic tale of greed and obsession,” continued Bashir, although he might have talking about Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in any given week. We were then guided, minute by gripping minute, through the taping of the major's stint in the hot seat. It swiftly became clear that, as criminal masterminds go, Charles Ingram ranks two notches below a slightly addled cuttlefish.
If you ask me, having hounded Ingram through court, Celador Productions should now give the poor, deluded chump his million. He's earned it, having breathed life back into a once brilliant but now overly familiar format, and entertained the nation no end. But assuming they don't, I've worked out that if everyone who watched A Major Fraud coughs up seven pence, we can pay Ingram back for all the fun he's brought us. You can send it to me, care of this newspaper. I (hack! ahem!) promise I'll forward it. All my friends will tell you that I'm an honourable and upright character who would never descend to some crooked, naive and helplessly cack-handed scheme to amass a small fortune.
Staying with gameshows, Desert Darlings can masquerade as a docusoap all it wants, but it's a suburban Survivor in the Namib desert and nothing more. Falklands veteran Ken Hames, a chap so rugged as to be all but indistinguishable from his surroundings, has offered to conduct six lily-livered couples on a month-long trek. As these programmes invariably attract the kind of self-regarding bores you'd fake death to get away from at a party, it bewilders me that we should welcome them into our living rooms.
Perhaps Survivor is not the most apt comparison. Desert Darlings is really about exposing flaws in the couples' relationships; Temptation Island might be nearer the mark. Here the temptation is not infidelity, but the urge to strangle one's partner, feed them to wild dogs and bury what's left in the veldt. My money's on Marie to be first for the dirtnap. “I
like a fight,” she had promised back in England, her empurpled lips drawn back like writhing nightcrawlers in a livid, instinctive snarl. I believed her. Marie, like nature, is red in tooth and claw. “But I can be charming,” she added, in contradiction of all subsequent evidence that she is a selfish, whingeing harridan.
Hames, meanwhile, seemed to wonder what he was doing there, and well he might. The Falklands war had a purpose; his qualities of leadership and endurance were tested for a cause. But there is no good reason for a dozen Middle Britons to go bumping around Namibia on camera, other than to gaze Narcissus-like into the shallows of their own psyches, while we at home justify their enrapturement by looking on.
What better way to point up the paradoxical luxury of choosing your own hardships, than by turning to the tragic story of Anne Frank? On this showing, there must be plenty of better ways. Its creators may have thought that setting it on such high moral ground would make it unassailable - what one might call Spielberg's Law. To criticise it would be to kick a dead little girl who iconically represents the victims of history's deepest wickedness.
Spielberg is a master storyteller. Whoever filmed Anne Frank is not. It revealed less about innocence, courage and betrayal than it did about the conventions of period drama. It was expensive, expertly acted and painstakingly crafted. It was also stilted and manipulative. Of course, all drama is manipulative - that's the point of it - but you shouldn't be able to hear the cogs grinding. And why shoot it the way pictures looked in the 1940s, as if the whole world's colours were different then, and not just the film?
Anne Frank was not so dreadful as to induce the celebrated, apocryphal heckle when the Gestapo arrived (“She's in the attic!”), but it would have been no surprise had a minor character run on shouting, “Anne! Anne! The Second World War has just begun!”
Further formulaic irritations abounded in Leonardo, a da Vinci frockumentary. Apparently, we're incapable of understanding history without the Equity contingent gadding about in britches. Mark Rylance played Leonardo as a cross between Hamlet and Fabio, the Mills & Boon cover model.
For narrator Alan Yentob, da Vinci was a Faustian figure, craving all knowledge. Yentob's encomium was delivered, predictably, to the backing of a choral mass - rather than, say, There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards by Ian Dury and the Blockheads. We all know that Leonardo was not only an artist of sublime genius, but may also be considered the progenitor of the parachute, the helicopter, the automobile, the gunboat and the Ronco Buttoneer. It's a shame that a programme devoted to the exemplar of human imagination could not credit its audience with a little of that quality.
Sublime genius in our own era is best represented by The Simpsons, or was until about three years ago. The ballyhooed 300th episode confirmed that it's not the show it was. Once the throwaway gags, inspired slapstick, self-referential quips and satirical digs were arranged with matchless artfulness around immaculate comedy driven by character and story. Now they've replaced it.
The Simpsons has come to resemble one of its own by-blows, Family Guy, an uneven succession of sketches and squibs. It's still very funny. But it's no longer perfect. When you consider that for a decade, perfect is exactly what The Simpsons was - an astonishing and unprecedented run of form in television - this is hardly cause for complaint.
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